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“Annie—”

“No, let me finish. I’ve had this little talk planned for days and I’m going to deliver it. The least you can do is stand here and listen.”

He closed his eyes and nodded.

“I’ve decided to haunt you.”

“What?” His eyes flew open.

“That’s right. You won’t be able to go into a restaurant without believing you see me there. I’ll be hiding behind every corner. I’ll follow you down every street. And as for enjoying another bowl of chili, you can forget that, as well.” By now her voice was trembling.

“I never meant to hurt you.”

She abruptly turned away from him, wiping the tears from her cheeks with both hands.

“Be happy, Annie.”

She would try. There was nothing else to do.

Chapter Eleven

“Have you had a chance to look over those brochures?” Muriel asked Maryanne two weeks later. They were sitting at the breakfast table, savoring the last of their coffee.

“I was thinking I should find myself another job.” It was either that or spend the rest of her life poring over cookbooks. Some people travelled to cure a broken heart, some worked—but not Maryanne. She hadn’t written a word since she’d left Seattle. Not one word.

She’d planned to send out new queries, start researching new articles for specialty magazines. Somehow, that hadn’t happened. Instead, she’d been baking up a storm. Cookies for the local day-care center, cakes for the senior citizens’ home, pies for the clergy. She figured she’d gone through enough flour in the past week to take care of the Midwest wheat crop. Since the holiday season was fast approaching, baking seemed the thing to do.

“But, sweetie, Europe this time of year is fabulous.”

“I’m sorry, Mom, I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but travelling just doesn’t interest me right now.”

Her mother’s face softened with concern. “Apparently, baking does. Maryanne, you can’t bake cookies for the rest of your life.”

“I know, I know. If I keep this up I’ll look like the Goodyear blimp by Christmas.”

Her mother laughed. “That obviously isn’t true. If anything, you’ve been losing weight.” She hesitated before adding, “And you’ve been so quiet.”

When she was in pain, Maryanne always withdrew into herself, seeking what comfort she could in routine tasks—such as baking. She was struggling to push every thought of Nolan from her mind. But as her mother said, she had to get out of the kitchen and rejoin the world. Soon she’d write again. Maybe there was a magazine for bakers—she could submit to that, she thought wryly. It would be a place to start, anyway, to regain her enthusiasm. Soon she’d find the strength to face her computer again. Even the sale of three articles hadn’t cheered her. She’d stared at the checks and felt a vague sense of disappointment. If only they’d arrived before she left Seattle; then she might have considered staying.

“Is it still so painful?” Muriel asked unexpectedly. Nolan and Maryanne’s time in Seattle, were subjects they all avoided, and Maryanne appreciated the opportunity to talk about him.

“I wish you and Dad had known him the way I did,” she said wistfully. “He’s such a contradiction. Rough and surly on the outside, but gentle and compassionate on the inside.”

“It sounds as though you’re describing your father.”

She pondered her mother’s words. “Nolan is a lot like Daddy. Principled and proud. Independent to a fault. I didn’t realize that in the beginning, only later.” She laughed softly. “No man could ever make me angrier than Nolan.” Nor could any man hope to compete when it came to the feelings he evoked as he kissed her. She came to life in his arms.

“He drove me crazy with how stubborn he could be. At first all I could see was his defensiveness. He’d scowl at me and grumble—he always seemed to be grumbling, as if he couldn’t wait to get me out of his hair. He used to look at me and insist I was nothing but trouble. Then he’d do these incredibly considerate things.” She was thinking of the day she’d moved into the apartment and how he’d organized the neighborhood teens to haul her boxes up four flights of stairs. How he’d brought her dinner. The morning he’d fixed her radiator. Even the time he’d tried to find her a more “suitable” date.

“There’ll be another man for you, sweetie, someone who’ll love you as much as you love him.”

A bittersweet smile crossed Maryanne’s lips. That was the irony of it all.

“Nolan does love me. I know it now, in my heart. I believed him when he said he didn’t, but he was lying. It’s just that he was in love with someone else a long time ago and he was badly hurt,” she said. “He’s afraid to leave himself open to that kind of pain again. To complicate matters, I’m Samuel Simpson’s daughter. If I weren’t, he might’ve been able to let go of his insecurities and make a commitment.”

“He’s the one who’s losing out.”

Maryanne understood that her mother’s words were meant to comfort her, but they had the opposite effect. Nolan wasn’t the only one who’d lost. “I realize that and I think in some sense he does, too, but it’s not much help.”

Her mother was silent.

“You know, Mom,” Maryanne said, surprising herself with a sudden streak of enthusiasm. “I may not feel like flying off to Paris, but I think a shopping expedition would do us both a world of good. We’ll start at the top floor of Sak’s and work our way straight down to the basement.”

They spent a glorious afternoon Christmas shopping. They arrived home at dinnertime, exhausted yet rejuvenated.

“Where was everyone after school?” Mark, the older of the Simpson boys, complained. At sixteen, he was already as tall as his father and his dark eyes shone brightly with the ardor of youth. “I had a rotten day.”

“What happened?”

Every eye was on him. Mark sighed expressively. “There’s this girl—”

“Susie Johnson. Mark’s bonkers over her,” fourteen-year-old Sean supplied, grinning shrewdly at his older brother.

Mark ignored him. “I’ve been trying to get Susie’s attention for a long time. At first I thought she’d notice me because of my brains.”

“What brains? Why would she do anything as dumb as that?”

Samuel tossed his son a threatening glare and Sean quickly returned to his meal.

“Some girls really go for that intelligent stuff. You, of course—” he looked down his nose at Sean “—wouldn’t know that, on account of only being in junior high. Which is probably where you’ll stay for the rest of your life.”

Samuel frowned again.

“Go on,” Maryanne urged Mark, not wanting the conversation to get sidetracked by her two brothers trading insults.

“Unfortunately Susie didn’t even seem to be aware I was in three of her classes, let alone that I was working my head off to impress her. So I tried out for the soccer team. I figured she’d have to notice me because she’s a cheerleader.”

“Your skills have been developing nicely,” Samuel said, nodding proudly at his eldest son.

“Susie hasn’t noticed.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Maryanne said.

“No, it’s true.” Mark signed melodramatically, as if the burden of his problem was too heavy to bear. “That was when I came up with the brilliant idea of paying someone—another girl, one I trust—to talk to Susie, ask her a few questions. I figured if I could find out what she really wants in life then I could go out of my way to—” he paused “—you know.”

“What you were hoping was that she’d say she wanted to date a guy who drove a red Camaro so you could borrow your mother’s to take to school for the next week or so.” Samuel didn’t succeed in disguising his smile as he helped himself to salad.

“Well, you needn’t worry,” Mark muttered, rolling his eyes in disgust. “Do you know what Susie Johnson wants most in this world?”

“To travel?” his mother suggested.

Mark shook his head.

“To date the captain of the football team?” Maryanne tried.

Mark shook his head again.

“What then?” Sean demanded.

“She wants thinner thighs.”

Maryanne couldn’t help it; she started to smile. Her eyes met her younger brother’s, and the smile grew into a full-fledged laugh.

Soon they were all laughing.

The doorbell chimed and Maryanne’s parents exchanged brief glances. “Bennett will get it,” Samuel said before the boys could vault to their feet.

Within a couple of minutes, Bennett appeared. He whispered something to Maryanne’s father, who excused himself and hurried out of the dining-room.

Maryanne continued joking with her brothers until she heard raised voices coming from the front of the house. She paused as an unexpected chill shot down her spine. One of the voices sounded angry, even defensive. Nevertheless Maryanne had no difficulty recognizing whose it was.

Nolan’s.

Her heart did a slow drumroll. Without hesitating, she tossed down her napkin and ran to the front door.

Nolan was standing just inside the entryway, wearing his raincoat. Everything about him, the way he stood, the way he spoke and moved, conveyed his irritation.

Maryanne went weak at the sight of him. She noticed things she never had before. Small things that made her realize how much she loved him, how empty her life had become without him.

“I’ve already explained,” her father was saying. Samuel managed to control his legendary temper, but obviously with some difficulty.

Nolan’s expression showed flagrant disbelief. He looked tired, Maryanne saw, as if he’d been working nights instead of sleeping. His face was gaunt, his eyes shadowed. “You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?”

“You’re damn right I do,” Maryanne’s father returned.

“What’s going on here?” she asked, stepping forward, her voice little more than a whisper. She was having trouble dealing with the reality that he was here, in New York, in her family’s home. But from the look of things, this wasn’t a social call.

“My newspaper column’s been picked up nationally,” Nolan said, his gaze narrowing on her. “Doesn’t that tell you something? Because it damn well should!”

Maryanne couldn’t conceal how thrilled she was. “But, Nolan, that’s wonderful! What could possibly be wrong with that? I thought it was a goal you’d set yourself.”

“Not for another two years.”

“Then you must be so pleased.”

“Not when it was arranged by your father.”

Before Maryanne could whirl around to confront her father, he vehemently denied it.

“I tell you, I had nothing to do with it.” Samuel’s eyes briefly met Maryanne’s and the honesty she saw there convinced her that her father was telling the truth. She’d just opened her mouth to comment when Nolan went on.

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